Commemoration, Celebration, Remembrance? How to mark historical anniversaries

by Karin Maag.

Anyone who has studied the Reformation in a history class has undoubtedly heard the story of Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517. Historians have subsequently debated whether or not he did nail the theses up, and have argued back and forth about the relative significance of his actions, but for a general audience, October 1517 is the date associated with the beginnings of Protestantism. Thus in 2017, Christian communities around the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

Luther socks: “Hier stehe ich: Ich kann nicht anders” (“Here I stand: I can do no other")
Luther socks: “Hier stehe ich: Ich kann nicht anders” (“Here I stand: I can do no other”)

In Germany in particular, sites associated with Luther’s life (even tangentially) are going all out to mark the anniversary and are organizing everything from special exhibits to concerts to specially-crafted tours for the occasion. To make sure the event has a resounding impact, the German organizers have named 2017 the Lutherjahr or Luther Year. A centralized website lists multiple opportunities to learn more about the Reformer and his time period. Meanwhile, companies are getting in on the act: you can even buy Luther socks with the phrase “Hier stehe ich: Ich kann nicht anders” (“Here I stand: I can do no other”) or a Playmobil™ Martin Luther figure, which has been selling at record rates.

toy Martin Luther holding a scroll
The Playmobil Luther. The first run of 34,000 figures sold out in 72 hours.

This anniversary, and others in the same vein, such as John Calvin’s 500th birthday in 2009, do however raise important questions for Christians, for historians, and for historians who are Christians. For starters, there is a growing problem of lack of awareness of the history of Christianity in contemporary congregations. For many Christians, it seems that the here and now is all that matters. Churches that place a strong emphasis on the centrality of Scripture may help their members learn more about the world of ancient Israel and Roman Judea, but then it seems that there is a massive drop-off of knowledge about any other aspect of Christian history until the current day. So planning events to commemorate the start of the Reformation may well involve some significant contextualizing work to help fellow church members grasp what happened in the sixteenth century and why. The default otherwise, at least in Protestant circles, is to go with a basic narrative of Luther’s life along the lines of the 2003 Luther movie, showcasing Luther as the heroic figure standing up against the might of the Catholic church, and ending abruptly in the early 1520s, before Luther’s actions and writings become more problematic (but definitely worth discussing).

A second challenge in commemorating 1517 is rooted in today’s more broadly ecumenical church. How does one mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (that caused a major and enduring split in western Christendom) without underscoring theological divisions and reviving hostilities? Can Catholics and Protestants find any fruitful ways to mark this anniversary together? When I was doing my PhD at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in the early 1990s, for instance, the Reformation Studies Institute at the university used to hold an annual Reformation Day lecture at the end of October. One year, partly as a joke and partly out of a sense that their perspectives were not being heard, a group of Catholic students held a competing “Deformation Day” event. Christians with a strong confessional background may want to consider carefully the impact of any 500th anniversary celebrations on Christians holding different beliefs.

The third challenge confronts historians, especially those who specialize in the Reformation. On the one hand, 2017 is likely to be a very good year for those of us in the field: there will be multiple opportunities to speak about the Reformation to a wide range of audiences, and we will be called upon to interpret and assess the Reformation’s legacy. On the other hand, the fanfare of an anniversary year focused on Luther tends to distort the rather more complex historical reality in which Luther was one figure among several pushing for foundational changes in the Christian church. For instance, the much less well-known Huldrych Zwingli, Luther’s near-contemporary, was at least as significant as Luther in getting the Reformation underway in the south German and Swiss lands. Reformation historians will have to work very hard to convey an accurate picture of the complexities, the conflicts, and the missteps that occurred in the sixteenth century, and avoid being pressured to convey a particular narrative of the Reformation that suits the perspective of their audience.

So is all the hoopla around 2017 worth it? In spite of the assorted challenges and pitfalls, I would have to say yes. In spite of the kitsch and the very real risks of distortions and triumphalism, being given the chance to introduce or re-introduce people to significant facets of Christian history that still shape beliefs and practices today is an opportunity not to be missed.

Karin Maag is Professor of History and Director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College. Born and brought up in Canada, she did her undergraduate degree in Montreal and her graduate work in Scotland, at the University of Saint Andrews. Her area of research is the social history of the Reformation, and she is currently completing a collection of primary sources on worship in Calvin’s Geneva.

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